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Tribune Spinoff Sounds Death Knell for TV-Print Synergy

Tribune's grand plans surrounding Times Mirror merger never materialized

You can’t hurry love. And you can’t force synergy.

Tribune’s long-awaited decision to spin off its newspaper holdings and bet squarely on television pounds a final nail in the coffin of the rationale underlying the Times Mirror-Tribune merger back in 2000.

“The acquisition would give Tribune Co. daily newspapers in the country’s three largest cities — New York (where Times Mirror owns Newsday), Los Angeles and Chicago, and is part of a long-range Tribune Co. strategy of owning multimedia assets in the same markets,” the Times reported at the time, adding that Tribune has “long promoted synergy among its various media properties.”

But the synergies between newspapers and TV, in hindsight, weren’t as advantageous as anticipated. Although print reporters remain logical talking heads for TV news, the two cultures are vastly different — one steeped in TV-based showbiz and the thirst for ratings, and the other rooted in more old-fashioned notions about journalism with a capital “J.” Even an evolution toward a web environment where newspapers prize clicks and traffic as much as broadcasters covet ratings hasn’t completely closed this divide.

Indeed, Tribune is following other companies — most notably News Corp., whose recent split separated Fox News Channel from the like-minded Wall Street Journal and New York Post editorial boards — in bailing on the equation of trying to make print plus TV equal more than the sum of their parts.

“The idea of having multiple media in a market is you give a competitive advantage to both,” Dennis FitzSimons, executive vice president of Tribune Co. and president of Tribune Broadcasting, said back when the merger closed. “There’s a lot of upside here, and we just have to make it happen.”

They didn’t. And whether that was due to their incompetence or a flawed template, the recent unwinding of such deals suggests, as the New York Times’ David Carr noted, that a horizontal structure — with companies amassing more outlets within a specific medium — is currently deemed superior to what came to be known as “vertical integration.”

In the full-disclosure dept., I used to work at the Los Angeles Times, and remember how much disdain most of us in the newsroom had for our corporate siblings at KTLA in Los Angeles. And while the station placed a correspondent in the newsroom to synergistically feature Times reporters on its local 10 p.m. newscast, the contempt was largely reciprocated, as KTLA entertainment correspondent Sam Rubin rather cleverly made clear in a column I wrote about our uneasy marriage.

Frankly, with the changes reshaping both newspapers and TV it’s possible the two will find more areas of cooperation down the road — that the shift toward a digital model, emphasizing video and carefully monitoring users’ movements to improve marketing to them, will allow them to meet somewhere in the middle.

But for now, anyway, they’ll be pivoting to face that brave new world separately, not together. And as anyone well versed in the ways of Hollywood can tell you, these kind of divorces are usually toughest on the kids.

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